The high-tech industry is looking to nature to make the gadgets we use every day more sustainable, using some unlikely materials to make manufacturing of laptops, mobile phones and other consumer electronics less energy intensive and detrimental to the natural world.
The environmental cost of our gadgets
Smartphones have changed everything about how we communicate, work and play. Latest figures from Statistica revealed that over three billion people worldwide now have a smartphone, and that over the next few years several hundred million more are expected to sell.
These phones have no doubt made life much easier, enabling us to travel, eat, bank, chat with friends, manage work and much more, wherever we are. But they come with a pretty hefty environmental footprint, which starts with the mining of materials to make them and ends with the e-waste created when they reach the end of their life.
Laptops, smartwatches, digital cameras, smart TVs, wireless printers, bluetooth speakers— all of the gadgets we surround ourselves with have the same impact. That's why researchers have been focused on finding replacements for materials like strontium, iron, aluminum, copper, gold and tin. The mining operations for these materials produce toxic waste materials and are also responsible for a considerable amount of deforestation.
Then when the gadget is no longer wanted, or no longer works, it often becomes part of the e-waste problem, which has many different sides to it. One is the fact that so many of the earth's precious materials that had to be mined are being squandered. According to a UN report, an estimated 7% of the world's gold may be contained in e-waste. There's also the fact that we're producing so much of it —an estimated 50 million tons a year— and that toxic elements such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury and lead are not being disposed of properly, making problems such as air, water, and soil pollution worse.
An employee carries discarded computer parts and other electronics for recycling
The natural alternatives
The natural alternatives are also known as sustainable dielectric materials, which are used in consumer electronics as insulators as they don't conduct electricity well. Traditional dielectric materials include plastic, glass, ceramic and oxides of various metals such as aluminum.
A strong contender for a natural dielectric material to replace them is aloe vera gel. Scientists at University Sains Malaysia discovered that aloe vera gel can be used as a natural dielectric layer in an organic version of thin film transistors (FETs), which are widely used in laptops, desktop computers, smartphones, tablets and high-resolution TVs to create their liquid crystal display screens.
FETs are currently made of silicon produced silica dioxide, which is the basic constituent of common sand. Silicon is manufactured by heating sand and carbon to temperatures of around 2200 °C, which requires a significant amount of energy. Plus, it has been widely reported in recent years that we're running out of sand, which is a key component in many industries, not just consumer electronics.
The good news, however, is that aloe vera gel can potentially replace silicon, and it boasts a significantly lower environmental impact. Processing of aloe vera gel can be done at just 40 °C so the amount of energy used in manufacturing will reduced dramatically. Growing aloe vera plants will also be a lot cheaper, easier and more sustainable than the mining operations required to extract sand.
Silk is also looking like a good alternative for some silicon-based electronics, particularly for organic light emitting transistors (OLETs) and in organic thin film field-effect transistors (OFETs). OLETs are a type of light-emitting transistor that emits that has the potential for use in digital displays. Field-effect transistors used to create basic analytical circuits, such as amplifiers, and are an essential element of the modern memory devices, integrated circuits and microprocessors used in our personal computers and laptops.
The future of Electronics
The use of these organic materials in our electronic gadgets is still very much at the development stage, While it's unlikely we'll see any available to consumers for quite some time, research into aloe vera gel and silk for use in smartphones and laptops is progressing.
The unique exploration of alternatives is continuously evolving-scientists are even looking at using human neurons in computers. These types of computers are known as wetware, which Techopedia defines as: "any hardware or software systems with a biological component, or biological systems that function like software and hardware. Different types of wetware are important in STEM disciplines like bioengineering, artificial intelligence and genetic research."
With research like this underway, it seems the future of electronics looks very different —and sustainable.
The author: Amanda Saint
Journalist specialising in stories about renewable energy, climate change, smart cities, sustainability, and urbanization.
Read more about Technologies
Selected content on this topic.